Why didn’t the West learn from Winston Churchill on Iraq?

Some historians argue that we should not be surprised by the turn of events in Iraq, given the West’s historic experiences

Peter Harrison

Published: Updated:

The situation in Iraq since the toppling of Saddam Hussein has worsened significantly – the warring between Sunni and Shiite communities has led to the deaths of many thousands of people – and arguably eased the progress made by ISIS. A weak government, backed by an ill-equipped military has been unable to create any form of stability in the country, which has effectively been in a state of civil unrest – possibly even war – since the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

But some historians argue that we should not be surprised by this turn of events, given the West’s historic experiences of the country as far back as the 1920s.

On September 1, 1922, Britain’s colonial secretary, Winston Churchill, expressed his concerns over the country’s ongoing presence in Iraq, following the uprising two years prior, in a letter to the then British Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

In the letter he wrote: “I am deeply concerned about Iraq …. I think we should now put definitely, not only to Faisal but to the Constituent Assembly, the position that unless they beg us to stay and to stay on our own terms in regard to efficient control, we shall actually evacuate before the close of the financial year. I would put this issue in the most brutal way, and if they are not prepared to urge us to stay and to co-operate in every manner I would actually clear out…..

Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill makes a radio broadcast at No. 10 Downing Street, London, in November 1942. (AP Photo)
Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill makes a radio broadcast at No. 10 Downing Street, London, in November 1942. (AP Photo)

At present we are paying eight millions (British pounds – the equivalent of about half a billion U.S. dollars today) a year for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano out of which we are in no circumstances to get anything worth having.”

Lloyd George did not take kindly to the advice and instead rebuked Churchill. Britain remained in Iraq for another 10 years before exiting in 1932.

Nearly 80 years later, a U.S.-led force invaded Iraq following claims by former President George W Bush that Saddam Hussein held stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. It soon became apparent that this claim was unfounded and there were no such stockpiles ever found.

British Journalist and naval historian Iain Ballentyne said he believed Churchill would have opposed any intervention in Iraq, had he been prime minister last decade.

He said: “I think Churchill would probably have steered clear of Iraq in the first place had he been PM in 2003, as he was a firm believer in only acting in the British interest, rather than running after allies such as the USA to be their new best friend like Tony Blair and his successors.

“Britain back then was the foremost global power and it wasn’t until WW2 that it lost that position, so it did what suited it. Were British sovereign interests at risk from Saddam in 2003 in a way that Churchill would sympathize with? No. He would have stayed out and told America to go it alone in my view. People should understand that the Special Relationship forged in WW2 was based entirely on solid strategic necessity, not sentiment for some sort of rose-tinted affinity between nations or any urge to fight a humanitarian war that was not an absolute necessity. While Churchill was sometimes economic with facts he would never have gone to war on the basis of something so thin and full of falsehoods as the notorious 'dodgy dossier'.

Mr Ballentyne said of Churchill’s stance in the 1920s: “What were the benefits to Britain? Oil? Most likely and that would primarily be for the navy, or was it for protecting the flank of the Suez Canal and the communications link to India? Therefore if Iraq was not critical to, or less critical than it might be, to vital strategic interests such as those, Churchill would want to see Britain get out and focus its efforts elsewhere.”

A report published in 2013 suggested the mounting cost of the U.S-led war in Iraq had reached $2 trillion and had led to the deaths of up to 190,000 military, militants, journalists, humanitarian workers and Iraqi citizens. Although with the continued unrest and invasion of ISIS in 2014 of parts of the country, these figures have likely grown significantly.

The report was the work of approximately 30 academics and experts - which was published in advance of the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003.

Despite the loss of life and mounting costs, the research concluded that there had been few gains for the U.S. and its allies. Instead the war had reinvigorated radical Islamist militants, set back women’s rights, and weakened an already precarious healthcare system, the report said.

Meanwhile, the $212 billion reconstruction effort was largely a failure with most of that money spent on security or lost to waste and fraud, it said.

Ahead of the war former President George W. Bush’s administration had justified the invasion of Iraq by claiming that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's government held weapons of mass destruction. But no such stockpiles were ever found.

"Action needed to be taken," said Steven Bucci, the military assistant to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in the run-up to the war and today a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think-tank.

He added: "If we had had the foresight to see how long it would last and even if it would have cost half the lives, we would not have gone in…Just the time alone would have been enough to stop us. Everyone thought it would be short."

But he said the toppling of Saddam and the results of an unforeseen conflict between U.S.-led forces and al -militants drawn to Iraq were positive outcomes of the war.

"It was really in Iraq that 'Al-Qaeda central' died," Bucci said. "They got waxed."

Historian Shannon Monaghan disagrees. In a blog entitled ‘Did Churchill Have the Right Idea About Iraq?’, she argued that Bush – who claimed to be a fan of Churchill, should have taken heed of the statesman’s experiences back in 1922.

She said: “Churchill had ‘declared the Arab officials of Iraq’s British-backed King Faisal ‘incompetent’.”

She wrote: “He noted the gross over-expenditure of monies in the region by the British government, which ‘it is almost certain Iraq will not be able to pay.’ Furthermore, he lamented that ‘no progress has been made in developing the oil.’”

She said Churchill was “worried about British troops and desperately concerned about increased Turkish influence in the region and a potential Turkish invasion.”

She added: “In fact, Churchill strongly advocated immediately removing the British presence in Iraq if the provisional Iraqi government did not co-operate. Furthermore, he pointed out that in Britain the party had ‘no political strength to face disaster of any kind,’ and that the British public’s opinion of the situation was so poor that a newly formed government at home would have to order ‘instant evacuation’ to gain immediate support.”

Monaghan argued that “one need only to turn on the news to realize that the United States is futilely struggling with the very same problems that Churchill struggled with – and more.”

And she said: “Ironically, Bush declared in 2004 that ‘I’ve always been a great admirer of Sir Winston Churchill, admirer of his career, admirer of his strength, admirer of his character - so much so that I keep a stern-looking bust of Sir Winston in the Oval Office.’

“If the President so admires Churchill, he should heed that great man’s warnings about involvement in Iraq and remove American troops from that nation now.”

Top Content Trending